Drugs, food and science

I have been working on this post for a long time. Here in the snowy quiet and peace of Alaska I have finally finished it. I tremble to publish it; I may lose friends and readers. A news story about a measles epidemic in England brought about because so many children are no longer being vaccinated gave me the push to publish. I don’t mean to tread on feelings. The things I am writing about here should be talked about without emotional baggage. This is a sort of advance apology; but here it is for what it’s worth. I still love all my friends on the left (where I mostly am), and those on the right as well.

I was trained as a scientist, and I spent many years of my life doing scientific research and writing scientific papers.  I didn’t like the work much, but it structured the way I think about the world.

The other day I was chatting with a friend, a lovely woman, intelligent and wonderfully creative. We were talking about pills we take and I mentioned that I may stop taking statins because I am having problems with muscle cramps and pain. I read some of the reports in scientific journals that I know are reliably peer reviewed. There is some good experimental evidence that this is a commom side effect of statins. Another side effect apparently is impaired short term memory, something I certainly don’t need. Since I do not have heart disease (although I do have high cholesterol) I may not really need to take statins. My friend  said, “There is a natural product that you can take. It comes from plants. It’s like a statin but it’s natural. I take it..” I asked how she knows it won’t have the same kind of side effects if it’s like a statin. She replied that she’s sure it won’t have side effects because she has friends who take it and they have had no problems.

This “natural” statin-like substance comes in the form of a pill — or perhaps an elixir — and is sold in a bottle or box that can be found in a shop that has various “health” products. The pill or fluid in that bottle or box has been extracted in a factory, by some chemical process, and packaged. The method of extraction is not known to the buyer, and the resulting product is minimally regulated by any agency so long as it is classified as a “food”. It is almost certainly not a single substance, but is a mixture of molecules of different kinds found in the plant or plants it was extracted from. When a person swallows it he is ingesting something (processed and packaged by other people) of uncertain effect and components. These bottles always come with disclaimers on them (required by law) that basically say, “We don’t really know what this does, but it might be good for you.”

I wonder why it is called natural. I do know that there are a lot of things out in the woods, not changed by human beings, that it is better not to eat.

I don’t know why one would assume that it’s safer to take an unregulated substance than to take a drug that has a known molecular structure, has no unknown contaminants, has been tested for purity, tested on animals for toxicity, tested on humans when it is deemed to be safe, and monitered when it is being used by the public to make sure that its use continues to be safe and effective. It is true that some drugs, after they have been approved, with long term use have been found to have unforseen side effects and all drugs have some side effects. Sometimes scientists that work for drug companies, governments and other institutions fake results; sometimes mistakes are made. It’s an imperfect world. These relatively rare instances get publicised and some people conclude that all drugs are dangerous and no scientist can be trusted.

A post on a friend’s facebook site showed a young man asking for money to finance the making of a video “proving” that green smoothies enhance athletic performance. The young man who wants to make this vidoe says he has everything he needs to make it (except money). He is an experienced film maker, has the necessary equipment, has doctors lined up to do blood work, has amazing athletes to cooperate — presumably to consume green smoothies. All he needs to prove his hypothesis — that green smoothies enhance athletic performance — is money. I think he needs something else. He needs to know something about how science is done.

Perhaps green smoothies do enhance athletic performance. It’s likely that a good diet in general would have a beneficial effect on performance and a poor diet would have the opposite effect. Green smoothies (the exact contents are not specified) might be included in a good diet, but whatever their effect, one could probably achieve the same benefit with a variety of foods and preparations. To actually test the effect of any dietary component one would need to carefully control everything the test subjects consumed, their physical condition at the outset of the experiment, and have a control group of other test subjects with all the same attributes and treatment except the consumption of green smoothies. And most important, one would begin, not with a hypothesis that green smoothies enhance athletic performance, but a hypothesis that green smoothies have no effect on athletic performance. If the experimenter is unable to prove this (the null hypothesis) with a careful statistical analysis,  then he can reasonably conclude that green smoothies probably enhance athletic performance. But to raise the level of certainty the experiment should be repeated by different experimenters and obtain the same or similar results.

There has been lately more than usual chatter in the media about GMO foods. It was stirred up by an amendment to a bill in the US Senate which activists against GMO foods call the “Monsanto amendment”. It’s basic provision protects farmers for a few months (until the first harvest) from law suits for planting newly marketed GMO seeds. The opponents of this amendment particularly attacked Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. She has been a long time darling of the left because she promoted a great variety of progressive legislation and causes. But now one commenter on my Facebook feed said she should be arrested and put in jail for sponsoring this amendment. Mikulski has since said that she opposes the amendment.

GMO — genetic modification organisms — refers to a method. It is a way of changing the genetic makeup of an organism. It is specific, in that it inserts one or more specific genes into an organism. Genetic changes produced by this sophisticated method are more predictable that those produced by other older ways of changing the genetic make-up of an organism, such as hybridization, selective breeding, radiation or chemical mutagens. Unless you are a hunter and gatherer of wilderness foods, your diet is almost entirely made up of things that have been genetically changed from their original form. And if you live in the 21st Century much of what you eat every day has GMO components, particularly if you eat any processed foods like flour, sugar, corn or soy products.

Gazillions of meals containing GMO’s are eaten every day in this country and many others. Even you hunter-gatherers probably consume some — stuff blows around. Nobody has become ill or died yet from eating them.

GMO’s are here, and they are not going away. They are as safe to eat as any other food. The science on that score is just as certain as the science on climate change. That does not mean that there are no problems associated with the widespread growing of GMO’s. What is does mean is that trying to stop farmers from growing GMO crops is a windmill jousting operation. There are a lot of things wrong with agri-business and Monsanto, the company that supplies it, but opposing all use of GMO’s will not fix those things.

Growing GMO’s changes the environmental challenges the world faces in trying to feed its huge and growing population. Yields per acre are greatly increased with GMO’s. Less pesticide is being used because GMO crops have been developed that resist insect damage. More herbicides are used because GMO crops resistant to herbicides allow farmers to use them to kill weeds without having to use machinery or other mechanical means. The sad decline of monarch butterflies is a well publicised result of this increased use of weed killers, but whole habitats are being destroyed by the indiscriminate use of roundup, so that many other less colorful and visible species are also affected. This problem will not be solved by scaring the public about the safety of eating GMO foods, or attacking scientists who develop new and better varieties using this method. If the problem is to be solved it will be by limiting and changing the ways herbicides are used.

The saddest incident resulting from the assault on the science of GMO’s, principally by Greenpeace, is the story of yellow rice. Children all over east Asia die because of a deficiency of vitamin A. The rice grown now, which is the staple food for most people there, has no vitamin A. Using GMO methods a rice was developed which contained vitamin A. It is a lovely yellow color — it looks like saffron rice. It had nothing to do with Monsanto. Monsanto did not develop the methods of GMO. It did not develop or market the modified rice. The yellow rice went through various tests for safety. When it was determined that it was safe for human consumption a group of children in China were selected to eat the yellow rice to determine whether it would raise their levels of vitamin A to a healthy point. Greenpeace began a campaigne claiming that Chinese children were being used as “guinea pigs” for dangerous experiments. Yellow rice was withdrawn from the market and the Chinese scientists who worked on it were fired, their careers ended. Children in Asia continue to die unnecessarily from vitamin A deficiency.

Science has been under attack all over the world by religious groups. The teaching of evolution, the foundation of all biological science has been prevented in many places in the United States. Science has been under attack by right wing politicians here and in other countries. The science behind climate change has been characterized by some right wing politicians as a sceintific hoax. In places like China science that might cause people to criticise the government is suppressed. Science is being attacked from the left as well. People on the left oppose things like the advances made by GMO methods to increase crop yields, and some oppose the immunizations of children. Many people are more willing to trust the unregulated companies that make “health” products than the US Food and Drug Administration. Drug company scientists, Monsanto, government scientists and university scientists are all suspected of engageing in conspiracies to harm the public.

Why is this, I wonder. It seems to me to be more widespread than it used to be, and there in an increasing anti-intellectualism in the United States and other parts of the world. Scientists are suspected, college professors are ridiculed, school teachers are underpaid and regarded as failures in life because they have to teach. Religious fundamentalism is another enemy of rational thinking, and Christians, Muslims and Jews all have fundamentalist sects that promote anti-scientific dogmas. That, plus the constant barrage of criticism of mainstream science from political groups, undermines the public trust in institutions and investigators with training and credentials and encourages people to take up various”alternatives” thought up by people with no real training or expertise. Word of mouth is considered more reliable than laboratory data.

What I think is needed — so much is needed — begins in early education and continues through the years that young minds are learning to evaluate the today’s avalanche of information. Children should be encouraged to admire intellictual achievment. They should understand how facts are collected by science and how these facts are organized and analysed. They should learn to question, to be skeptical, to suspect anecdotal reports. They should understand proof and have the tools to be able to distunguish it from myth, rumor and lies.

This won’t happen in my lifetime. I hope it happens in the lifetime of my great-grandchildren. That’s important if the world is to survive.

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25 Responses to Drugs, food and science

  1. Rain Trueax says:

    I agree with you. The thing with herbals that people forget– what might be safe in a food changes when it’s increased to a medicinal amount. Salt, sugar, you name it. If you take a lot of it, its impact isn’t the same. I have some books on herbal treatments which were used in pioneer times as often the only option. It goes into the risks and the possible advantages. People talk as though for instance a herbal dose for menopause is safe where a prescription is not. But in the end if it does the same thing, it probably has the same or even greater risks.

  2. Dale Favier says:

    I agree with all this. I loathe Monsanto, but not because of their GMO research — it’s because of how they deploy their agricultural power (which is extraordinary, and which I would love to see curbed.)

    I don’t even know where to start. The level of science education is so low, in the U.S. If I were to take issue with every science absurdity I see in my newsfeed on Facebook, I would spend all day doing nothing else. Shrewd interesting science and complete nonsense spray from the same fans: you can tell people have no resources whatever for distinguishing the plausible from the absurd, the authoritative from the wacko. It’s scary.

  3. Tom says:

    I’m adding a comment, not so much as a carefully thought exercise, but to indicate I have been here, read, and am considering what you say. I count myself fortunate that my discipline was not biology, research into which has attracted so much opprobrium. Two thoughts immediately come to mind. The first is that people are deeply suspicious of large agri-businesses that apparently seek to shackle farmers and other consumers to their need to make profits with as large a margin as possible. Second, there appears to be a growing tendency that people are less inclined to believe “official” science and, indeed, traditional news sources of any kind. They would rather accept “gut instinct” and perceived common sense. (Heaven preserve us from that!) Science has not always expressed itself in a most appropriate way. Too many scientists have claimed to be “right” – which is no better than the religious fundamentalists claim – quite regardless of the number of proven mistaken hypotheses advanced in the past. Perhaps there is a need for more humility, less “I know” and “What’s wrong with arrogance when I know I’m right.” (a quote from an Oxford, UK, professor.) I shall continue to think about your well-argued post.

  4. Lucy says:

    Nothing much to add, but I think perhaps you underestimate your readers if you think this will lose you many…

  5. Tabor says:

    This is a good discussion to have. I hate the anti-science culture that is emerging. But I also know from reading and anecdotal discussions, we have a huge and growing problem with food allergies. I saw an interesting video on this posted by a friend who works with scientists and it was very critical of GMOs and other changes we are doing to our environment. I may post it and you can certainly feel free to comment. I am apolitical on this…but really want to hear all sides more. As for natural remedies, that is a sorry state of affairs. If it worked someone would be packaging it by the millions.

  6. You certainly won’t lose this card-carrying member of The Skeptics Society! I agree with Dale – Monsanto are despicable for the economic power they wield over farmers, which has nothing to do with GMO.

    I recently read Ben Goldacre’s book, Bad Science, which I think you would enjoy, Anne. He’s very scathing on the modern trend to idolize everything “natural” and dismiss many years of scientific advance in favor of the latest, usually high-priced, snake-oil treatments.

  7. I can only say hear, hear. Natural does NOT mean it is always beneficial. This winter three people died and one needs a liver transplant because they ate a completely natural mushroom which they picked near their home. Tragic, and foolish. In probably equal parts.

  8. Friko says:

    yes, yes, yes and yes. I could go on, but I’d still only say yes.
    You haven’t lost this reader for telling it like it is. On the contrary.

  9. Our culture is one of extemes and fads. The pendulum swings back and forth, but rarely pauses in the middle – at least in the U.S. As a culture, we’d all be better off with a dose of moderation. Not “all” GMO foods are bad and not “all” natural foods are good for us.

    By the way, I drink green smoothies because I like them and they help me get more green vegetables in my diet. I also know, I could get the same health benefit by eating those vegetables …..

  10. Hattie says:

    I certainly would trust modern medicine before I would trust the latest snake oil fad. I think you lay out your argument very well here, and I also think you ought to even turn up the volume. This anti-science stuff has gotten way out of hand.

  11. Hattie says:

    Anne: Would it be OK if I distributed this to people? We have a confrontation brewing here. A group is organizing to take on GMOs, Monsanto, etc. but a couple of people are worried that anti-science hotheads will damage the cause. None of them are scientists, and they all have rather wooly ideas about these matters and could use the information you provide here.

  12. Betty Bishop says:

    I had 5 artist friends for dinner last week [we take turns] and a good part of the general discussion was concerning the dangerous world we live in. On and on – “microwaves are dangerous Betty” “oh god, you don’t use that Hazelnut Coffeemate do you – that is SO Bad Betty!” as she pours her coffee down the sink. Another conspicuously left the pastry surrounding the apples in the apple pie. Each had a list of fears.
    I always ask the same question “how is it that we are living such long healthy lives if most everything we swallow is more or less poison? I am 79 and healthy. My grandmother died at 74 as did my mother – both were much older than I feel or look [according to my children]”. I asked each of them if they weren’t healthier than their mothers at the same age and all had to agree they were but none gave any credit to science. I don’t get it.
    I stopped taking my high cholesterol statins too – I find they seriously affect my short term memory although my doctor seems not to have heard of that side effect.

  13. lawyerdaughter says:

    I really don’t understand why people can’t be rational about this. When I told you that I didn’t want to take HRT, and was taking flax seed oil and other herbal supplements, you told me I was just taking plant estrogen which was estrogen just the same, but with less oversight. What you said made sense. So I stopped taking it because I didn’t want to take the hormones for safety reasons.
    I don’t understand why people have to invest so much emotion in defending “natural” remedies. What smart people should want is the most effective and safest substance, and that is best found through the sort of controlled testing required for drugs by governmental entities like the FDA.

  14. lawyerdaughter says:

    I really don’t understand why people can’t be rational about this. When I told you that I didn’t want to take HRT, and was taking flax seed oil and other herbal supplements, you told me I was just taking plant estrogen which was estrogen just the same, but with less oversight. What you said made sense. So I stopped taking it because I didn’t want to take the hormones for safety reasons.
    I don’t understand why people have to invest so much emotion in defending “natural” remedies. What smart people should want is the most effective and safest substance, and that is best found through the sort of controlled testing required for drugs by governmental entities like the FDA.
    BTW-I sent you an email, please check your email.

  15. Old Woman says:

    Just thought I’d all this comment that my baby son (he’s 40) left on my Facebook page:
    Ben wrote: “Great blog mom. Mystics are mystics. On the right we have the Christian mystics, on the left we have the neuvo-quazipagan green-but-confused mystics. The low value placed on empirical, demonstrable information in this modern age, when it’s so readily available, is certainly frustrating.”

  16. Randy Smith says:

    I’ve known the young man making the green smoothie film/study since he was about 14 years old. He is a very serious and accomplished young fellow who is, alas, bereft of a graduate degree. He had juvenile diabetes and his mother was unwilling to accept the scientific sentence of a life of pharmaceuticals. She researched and discovered the raw food diet. One could call it a “natural” diet. It cured his diabetes and he has turned into quite the healthy athlete. The entire family have become evangelists for raw food with websites, books and videos. I realize this cure is anecdotal and anecdotes are the bane of the religion known as “science.” Our family learned the hard way that “science” is very limited, often misdirected and, more often, bought and paid for. Re: your Facebook post, the essay didn’t make me mad, but a bit disappointed to learn how absolutely mainstream your thinking is on all these issues.

  17. Hattie says:

    Many sick people are turning to “alternatives” because they can’t afford medical care. And snake oil salesmen have always been a feature of American life. So someone wants to sell green goop and books about raw foods. Can’t hurt you, I guess, if your over-all health is good, although there are reasons for cooking food! Ever tried digesting raw kale? Have you thought about the way cooking food kills pathogens?
    Anyway, I am glad you are willing to take this on, Anne. It can be intimidating, I know, to enter into the fray on this stuff.
    And can I show your essay around? Anonymously, if you wish? We’ve got a lot of nuts and berries people around here who drive me crazy with their willingness to entertain some pretty goofy notions. They are not stupid, but they don’t have the perspective of people who remember what it was like before vaccinations for measles and polio. Before antibiotics. One of my mother’s sisters died of diabetes before she was 17, a pathetic matter. I doubt if diet would have saved her. She needed insulin. If the insulin producing cells have been destroyed, which is the definition of Type I diabetes, the only way to survive is to take insulin. That is just one of those pesky scientific facts.
    BTW: This has nothing to do with being conventional or unconventional. I see people all around me who have bought into nutso ideas about science and health, and they do not impress me. I just think they’re deluded/ and or opportunists.

  18. Cathy Thompson says:

    Hi Anne – 1st of all, I do hope you are correct that GMOs are safe, since as you say they seem to be mostly unavoidable. And you’ll never lose me as a friend if we disagree on a topic. I have to agree with some of the comments above about Monsanto – “despicable for the economic power they wield over farmers, which has nothing to do with GMO. ” I do have a bit of knowledge about one type of GMO product, since my cousin owns the family farm and actually grows GMO corn seed for Monsanto – it’s been developed so it can withstand massive sprays of Roundup – not sure that’s a good thing, but that’s what he grows for them, and there are now fields of corn all over the world that can be sprayed with Roundup and only the corn survives. He explained Monsanto seed patenting, and I do worry that Monsanto may eventually own the patents on most of the seeds for our world’s food sources – I don’t think that is a good idea if that’s how it pans out.

    On another note – can’t wait to see you and Jerry back on the island – you will absolutely LOVE the weather here – the new San Diego we call it!

  19. Old Woman says:

    Of course you can use this, with my name if it means anything. I do have a Ph.D. in Biology and I did work in the field of medical and biological research for a number of years, also taught biology at the college level. So I have some credentials. I was going to write you an email, but am traveling and my internet connections are iffy. Will write when I get home. Anne

  20. Hattie says:

    OK. And thank you. All the best to you.

  21. Enjoyed reading your post as well as many comments. Blogging as I had viewed it when began six years ago would be a way to exchange ideas, come to know others with different perspectives, thereby grow personally/intellectually. Thanks for moving your readers onto that path. Along with other I do fear Monsanto and other voracious corporations whose goals are soulless, unrelated to anything other than the bottom line.

  22. Pat Hayes says:

    Hi Anne– Looking forward to you and Jerry getting back home to the island!
    I agree with much–even most–of what you’ve written here, but I no longer have an unskeptical view of “science” as it has been practiced in the last several years. Starting with corporations funding of university research to underfunding of watchdog groups like the FDA, I no longer have blind faith that medicines or foods can be trusted, prima facie, to be pure and safe.
    Skepticism is very “scientific” I should think; look at the evidence. In the case of new gene-splicing GM foods, evidence of their safety for human consumption and the environment over the long run is simply not there yet. Show me the research and evidence and I’ll embrace the new foods. We’ve observed the wreckage left in the wake of many scientific developments in the form of dire unintended consequences. I am not a true believer in either camp but I would hold “scientific breakthroughs” (especially that make huge corporations like Monsanto billions) to the same rigorous observation and testing, over time, that all true scientists insist on.
    Looking forward to your return! Lots to talk about over mahjongg! Pat

  23. lawyer daughter says:

    So, your granddaughter has now written a blog about this. Figures. My family. Here it is.

    She’s been asked to be a guest speaking at a huge protest against Monsanto in San Francisco on the 25th this month.

  24. Pingback: Drugs, food and science | Grannymar

  25. You’ve laid out a sensible statement! I will be referring folks to your article. I have also stopped taking statins, although I do take turmeric in tea. It’s used by some cardiologists that my son knows (he’s a PA). Taking turmeric coincided with my cholesterol going down from 409 to 127. Yes, I know it’s anecdotal evidence.

    Thanks a lot!

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